Why 'debunking myths' is the biggest PR myth of all

— Ching-Han Wan 

Last week, WE attended an event hosted by the makers of popular science podcasters, Science Disrupt. The session, Disrupting the Conversation, featured Guardian and Vice journalist, Stephen Buranyi alongside expert panelists including a forensic scientist (Professor Ruth Morgan), health psychologist (Richard Clarke) and climate change activist (Dr. Alice Bell).

Echo chambers and 'fake news' in combination with political manipulation and personalisation means we’re experiencing completely different realities and truths from one another. We’re living in an era where entrenched myths and unfounded beliefs are reinforced by online communities, and science is relegated to Hollywood and TV drama. So, what do the experts think about how science-related topics are communicated?

Professor Ruth Morgan - Director of the UCL Centre for Forensic Science:
“The popularity of crime drama has been good at showing what tech and science can do but what we see in the media isn’t as clear cut as it seems. The need for absolute certainty is attractive to the public but it’s important to know the gaps as well as what is being presented”

Richard Clarke - PhD researcher at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine:
“Social media and patient groups can help people to find commonality with one another. However, within these circles, you can erode trust quickly by repeating myths, over explaining myths, and having too strong of an opinion can be damaging as it shuts down discussion”

Dr Alice Bell, Director of Communications 10:10:

“Doubt has been weaponised, but science sceptics are still quite marginal. Scientists have the opportunity to build trust by involving people and relate to them on a community and personal level versus the grand concept of tackling a big mission like climate change.”

Promise versus Proof

Our Brands In Motion study found that in light of the sociological forces driving motion, people want stability in these uncertain times, and they’re looking for less promise and more proof from brands and industries. Stephen Buranyi asked the panelists if scientists should monitor and proactively counter pop-cultures’ view of science. Surprisingly, the consensus was resounding no. “If you’re debunking then you’re already too late”, said Dr Bell. Though, the scientists do believe that there are layers within how ‘fake news’ and misinformation is spread that should be examined and controlled including source validation and education.

There are believers and there are sceptics. However, we mustn’t forget the power of the undecided mass in the middle. For example, in court cases, “you have the judge and defendant, but the biggest stakeholders are the public who make up juries and can therefore change the future,” says Professor Ruth Morgan. This is the group we should be communicating to. To tap into these audiences, Richard explained the theory of planned behaviour, “giving audiences behavioural tips is more impactful than bombarding them to do something.”

As communicators of science, health and technology stories, we should focus on seeding ideas versus declaring revolutions. And that is why the biggest myth in PR is the need to ‘debunk myths’. Brands should stay true to their mission if they want to make real change. How we engage in discussions with the undecided middle is far more important than trying to ‘debunk’ the few sceptics.